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How unfair pretrial release practices affect black defendants in San Francisco

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In May, the release of racist text messages between San Francisco police officers drew the kind of attention to the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement there that traditionally only comes after a high profile police-involved death.

A study conducted by the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice equality, and published last week in a report by the Reentry Council of the City And County of San Francisco, took a close look at criminal justice disparities in the city. It concluded just as in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and New York City; the differences between the ways in which black and white citizens there interact with law enforcement and courts are shocking. For example, African Americans are 7.1 times as likely as whites to be arrested in San Francisco.

But one of the even more shocking areas of inequality had to do with what happens after arrest — who's released and who ends up behind bars. The Reentry Council concluded that black adults are less likely to be released, although they're more likely than white adults to meet the conditions for release.  And this happens at every single step of the process:

Black adults are less likely to be released at all process steps: Black adults are less likely to receive an "other" release (i.e., cited, bailed, and dismissed); less likely than White adults to be released by the duty commissioner; and less likely to be granted pretrial release at arraignment.

Could it be that black people aren't being released because of other factors that weigh against release, like prior felonies or prior misdemeanors? Did education make a difference? No.

The study controlled for these things and found that, no matter how you slice it, black people are more likely to remain in custody while white people are more likely to walk free.

Out of all adults who meet the criteria for pretrial release (the entirety of the SFPDP database):

39 percent of Black adults had prior felony(ies) compared to 26 percent of White adults, however, White adults with a prior felony were almost always more likely to be released at arraignment than Black adults with a prior felony

44 percent of Black adults had prior misdemeanor(s) compared to 45 percent of White adults, however, White adults with a prior misdemeanor were almost always more likely to be released at arraignment than Black adults with a prior misdemeanor; and 62 percent of Black adults had a high school diploma or GED compared to 66 percent of White adults, however, White adults with a HSD/GED were almost always more likely to be released at arraignment than Black adults with a HSD/GED.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi told SF Weekly that the way black San Franciscans are treated — especially when it comes to pretrial release — puts an enormous burden not just on the people who are arrested, but their families and their entire communities.

"There is a direct correlation between being denied pretrial release and being convicted," he said. "People in jail are more likely to plead guilty just to get out, even if they're innocent. Being allowed pretrial release means being able to hold onto your job, your housing—even your children."

"All ni**ers must fucking hang": the text messages

While organizations like the San Francisco Reentry Council are scrutinizing available data to uncover evidence of bias in the city's criminal justice system, San Francisco prosecutors are investigating 3,000 specific criminal cases that may have been compromised by 14 police officers whose biases were revealed by the racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages.

The text messages that sparked the probe were originally uncovered in a court document. In March, prosecutors filed a motion opposing bail for former police officer Ian Furminger, who'd been sentenced on corruption-related charges. The motion listed his text messages — which included racial slurs and stereotypes about African Americans. They argued that the content of the text messages indicated he was not worthy of bail.

The text messages Furminger exchanged with people, including other San Francisco police officers, use racist statements to describe people whom we can assume to be San Francisco residents the officers were charged with serving (in response to a message saying "all ni**ers should be spayed," Furminger replied, "I just saw one an hour ago with 4 kids"), as well as other police officers ("fuckin ni**er" was his response to a colleague's promotion to sergeant).

Here are the messages revealed in the motion:

Government's opposition motion to defendant Furminger's motion for bail pending appeal (via LA Times)

Government's opposition motion to defendant Furminger's motion for bail pending appeal (via LA Times)

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